This is not meant in any way to take the shine off what has been an intriguing northern hemisphere championship, but the bigger picture is next year’s World Cup in England.
It is no secret that the big three southern hemisphere nations have had a near-stranglehold on the Webb Ellis Cup, winning two tournaments each, with only the 2003 England team breaking that domination.
And the route Clive Woodward – later Sir Clive – took to winning the World Cup in Australia is significant in the light of this year’s Six Nations, or more specifically, the games leading up to the global showpiece.
England have a three-Test tour of New Zealand between June 7 and 21 where they play back-to-back internationals against the All Blacks in Auckland, Dunedin and Hamilton.
It’s a tacit declaration of their intentions in the 2015 global showpiece and a tough examination of their ability to take on the top-rated team in the world.
Similarly, Wales – even though they’re out of the Six Nations reckoning this year – have opted for the hard road, with Tests against the Springboks at Kings Park on June 14, at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit a week later as well as being South Africa’s final opponents on the end-of-year tour of Europe.
Ireland, a nation who have only missed out on the quarterfinal stages once in seven editions of the World Cup, will travel to South America to pit their abilities against southern hemisphere Rugby Championship newcomers Argentina in Tests against the Pumas on June 7 and the following week.
This flexing of muscles by the sides north of the Equator takes on added significance weighed against Woodward’s winning 2003 campaign.
France had been Six Nations champions in the early months of 2002, but by the end of the year, England had beaten the All Blacks 31-28, Australia 32-31 and handed out a 53-3 devastation of the Springboks in three Tests at Twickenham.
They followed this with a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2003 – putting 40 points past Italy, Scotland and Ireland – and in the build-up to the World Cup, beat the All Blacks 15-13 in Wellington and the Wallabies 25-14 in Melbourne. By the end of the year, England had achieved a better-than 94% winning aggregate.
It did two things for England –it gave Martin Johnson’s side the momentum they needed and instilled a sense of self-belief in the World Cup squad.
This will be what the northern hemisphere sides will be looking to replicate.
But turning to today’s matches, two thoughts are top of mind for me. Ireland, who have that massive points difference, will be laying everything on the line against France in Paris for Brian O’Driscoll, and equally, the question will be wether England have learnt the lessons laid down by Woodward or will try and get ahead of themselves and concentrate on racking up a massive score in Rome. Italy are, after all, not a bad side and rested stars like Sergio Parisse against Scotland last week.
Jake White is South Africa’s World Cup-winning coach of 2007 and currently director of coaching at the Sharks.